Spring in the mountains can mean wildflowers, or still snow by the foot! At Mount Rainier National Park, spring can be a wonderful time to snowshoe but have a better chance at good weather and clear roads. But, there’s some key info you should know!
There’s a few key things you should know before grabbing your gear (and National Park Pass) and heading out to the park. Regardless of conditions or snowpack, having chains for your tires is required for all vehicles (even AWD or 4WD) November 1st to May 1st. This is due to the unpredictability of weather in the area and chance of sudden whiteout conditions. There are some places outside of the parkthat will rent chains, or if you are 100% confident the weather won’t turn, you can borrow any chains from a friend. The requirement is to show you have them at the entrance gate (where you pay the $30 to enter the park or show your America the Beautiful Pass), not to have them on.
FEELIN HOT HOT HOT
Even when checking the weather and seeing temps in the 50s, we thought since we’d be surrounded by snow it would be cold. It wasn’t. We could have done t-shirts! Be sure to bring many layers to keep you from getting too hot as well as too cold. The sun was a bigger impact than the snow.
WALKING ON SUNSHINE
You might think you know that the sun’s rays reflect off the snow. You might think you know that the sun is stronger at high elevations. But you do not know how bad the sun can be on a spring day at MRNP. We both regretted not bringing a billed hat, bringing knit hats instead. We also could barely see our phone and camera screens and every time we took off our sunglasses we were blinded. But nothing compared to the burn.
Even if you never burn and are always careful, I’m telling you–you aren’t ready for this. Normally I get dressed, then apply sunscreen on any visible skin. That was a mistake. What I’d recommend for MRNP is putting on sunscreen everywhere (and I do mean everywhere) before getting dressed. On day 1 we both ended up shedding layers and pushing up sleeves, and that is where our worst burns were. We also had bad burns on the wattle area (under the chin) from the sun reflecting straight up. Don’t forget to put sunscreen all over the nostrils! I’d set a timer for reapplying every two hours so you don’t forget that either. I might sound like I’m overselling it, but I know someone who had second-degree burns from a sunny day at MRNP–it really is bad, even if you wear sunscreen, even if you reapply.
If the sun is out, the snow will be melty and slushy in the afternoon. We both brought snowshoes and poles but carried our microspikes in our bags just in case. Marissa forgot her snow baskets to her poles, which was a huge detriment to her–make sure to bring them! While even during COVID the Longmire gift shop was open, they only sell a small amount of useful items (including sunscreen), and not replacement snow baskets. If you don’t own snowshoes, here’s my post on picking out a pair and also on other winter essentials I always carry. Even if it is sunny, still bring extra layers–the weather here can be fatally unpredictable. Ashford does have gear rental shops, as well as REI, if needed.
THIS IS THE WAY (right?)
I’d recommend taking a look at Jennie from Ordinary Adventures’ post on top routes here. We picked two and I assumed, stupidly, that the trails in both spots would be blatantly obvious. This was horrendously wrong. We started following one really obvious trail from the Paradise parking lot, and even when I realized it was headed the wrong way, we kept going. Winter routes often look different from summer routes, so we wasted a lot of energy going the wrong way and had to backtrack. Normally we have GPS trails from Gaia or AllTrails, but we couldn’t find winter routes on those. We eventually made our way to the Glacier Vista trail, but were too tired (and unknowingly sunburnt) to finish. There is a massive labyrinth of trails from the Paradise parking lot–don’t rely on those!
Day two, we vowed, would be better. We had a ranger draw the route on a map for us for our planned destination, Narada Falls to Reflection Lake. At the right time of winter, there will be helpful signage and orange poles showing you the route. Not for us. The ranger warned us the guidance had just been taken down (why????). Long story short, we spent what felt like hours on-trail poring over maps and GPS and going the wrong way. If we had Jennie’s info ready, we might have started correctly, but the day was a loss.
Overall, don’t let my sunburn and embarrassing lack of route-finding scare you off a spring trip. The weather was glorious, and knowing the roads were clear and bare was a huge relief. In true winter, the gates in (and out) of the park can often close at sporadic times due to weather, while in spring it’s more predictable. Also, spring meant more businesses in Ashford were open. After a day of sun and snow, pizza & beer from Basecamp Bar & Grill was a welcome treat! So grab your gear and get out, while the gettin’s good!